Cloudy but a chance: Suns’ opener shaded by contract controversy

(Video by Jayden Sormani/Cronkite News)

PHOENIX – The Phoenix Suns tip off their 2021-2022 regular season tonight with a home opener against the Denver Nuggets at the Footprint Center. On the surface, it is a night to celebrate the success of last year’s surprising run to the NBA Finals.

But tensions hang over the Suns that could stifle their attempts to repeat as Western Conference champions.

The largest and most glaring concern came when center Deandre Ayton and the Suns could not reach an agreement on a contract extension. Ayton has publicly expressed his displeasure over the stalled negotiations, telling ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski, “I love Phoenix but I’m really disappointed that we haven’t really gotten a deal done yet.”

A fan favorite out of the University of Arizona, Ayton was drafted by the Suns with the No. 1 overall pick in 2018. The 23-year-old center is set to become a restricted free agent after this season.

While Suns owner Robert Sarver has not publicly commented about the failed contract discussions, general manager James Jones spoke to The Athletic’s Sam Amick and explained that there was little to negotiate with Ayton.

“Anything less than a five-year max wasn’t something to be considered — not something to talk about. It’s evident. They talk about us having discussions on a three-year, four-year max (deals). Those are real,” Jones said. However, as subsequently reported by The Athletic, Ayton’s agents insist no max contract of any term length was officially offered.

It is unclear why the Suns front office may have been more interested in a shorter contract of three to four years. While Ayton took a step back statistically last season, his progress on the defensive side bore fruit, as he became the anchor to the league’s seventh-best defense by points allowed. In the playoffs, Ayton received immense praise for his defensive prowess over Nikola Jokic, the season’s MVP, and it seemed like a five-year max extension was on the cards for the Suns’ big man.

Alas, Sarver ultimately did not agree with this evaluation. Ayton now joins Anthony Bennett as the only No. 1 overall pick to not sign an extension to their rookie contract since 2008.

But in the backcourt, Sarver and the Suns showed a much stronger willingness to commit. Early on in the offseason, the Suns locked up Chris Paul to a four-year, $120 million contract that could keep the point guard in the Valley through 2025. However, the team has a partial guarantee on the 2023-2024 season, and Paul has a player option for the 2024-2025 season, giving both sides some flexibility in the future.

Chris Paul and the Phoenix Suns finished 3-1 in the preaseason, which included a victory over the Los Angeles Lakers, and expectations are high for a team opening its season tonight at home against the Denver Nuggets. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

And just before Tuesday’s deadline to sign extensions for players on rookie-scale contracts, wing Mikal Bridges and guard Landry Shamet both signed extension offers of four-years, $90 million and $43 million respectively. Bridges is coming off a career-year scoring wise and a sterling defensive effort in the NBA playoffs, earning a fully-guaranteed extension.

Shamet, who was traded to the Suns on draft night for the 29th pick and Jevon Carter, has impressed in training camp and the team is confident in his ability to contribute immediately. But in similar fashion to the Paul deal, the final two years of Shamet’s contract are non-guaranteed and the Suns hold the option for both years.

Suns coach Monty Williams praised Shamet for getting the extension done and showing his commitment to the franchise. Williams and Shamet have already built a rapport, as Williams was an assistant coach on Brett Brown’s coaching staff for the 2018-2019 season, Shamet’s rookie year with the Philadelphia 76ers.

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“What we’ve seen so far and what we knew about Landry, we thought ‘That’s the kind of guy that can be in our program,’” Williams said.

“The programs he has been in, he’s been around vets, so he knows what it’s like to go through tough days, long days, playoff days.”

While Williams ultimately has no say in contract negotiations, he supports the players and their efforts to get paid their due. As a player in the league for nine years, Williams understands the harsh reality of an athlete.

“When you see guys getting paid, it’s pretty cool,” Williams said. “It’s my job. I’ve said it before, I want to win games and increase the earning power of the players that we have in our program.”

Paul spoke to the media after Wednesday morning’s shootaround and quelled notions that this standoff between Ayton and the team’s front office will negatively affect Ayton’s on-court performance this season.

“I know DA’s heart,” Paul said. “I know how he competes and I know how competitive he is and at the end of the day, he wants to do his job for our team.

“I know when he step out on the court tonight, it’s gonna be all about ‘What do you gotta do to help our team win.’”

While the Suns had a short offseason turnaround – the 2021 Finals ended June 20, when Milwaukee beat Phoenix, four games to two – the players have been itching to get the new season underway.

“We (are) just excited to finally get on the court and play, and start building. We have no idea what this team is gonna look like,” Paul said. “We just ready to hoop.”

Sports Reporter, Phoenix

Kenneth Manoj expects to graduate in December 2021 with a master’s degree in sports journalism. Manoj, who has worked as a freelance videographer for Riccio Productions, ZAP Entertainment and Harvard University, is working in the Phoenix Sports Bureau.

Sports Reporter, Phoenix

Jayden Sormani expects to graduate December 2021 with a bachelor’s degree in sports journalism. Sormani, who has a self-titled YouTube channel, is working in the Phoenix News Bureau.